How Your ‘Break Style’ Is Killing Your Productivity

How Your ‘Break Style’ Is Killing Your Productivity

Dr Amantha Imber (pictured below) is the Founder of Inventium, Australia’s leading innovation consultancy and the host of How I Work, a podcast about the habits and rituals of the world’s most successful innovators. In her latest post for B&T, the goodly Doc looks at how your breaks during the day could be ruining your productivity…

There are three types of people when it comes to taking breaks at work. The first type are those who don’t take breaks, because they believe breaks are for the “weak” and less productive. If they could have food and coffee delivered to them via IV drip, they would.

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The second type find any excuse for a break. Is someone doing a coffee run? They’ll go with you! Are people gathering around the water cooler for a chat about last night’s episode of The Bachelor? Better get to the water cooler!

The third type have a more balanced approach to breaks and would typically pause for a mission-oriented break (e.g. get a coffee, eat a muffin) mid-morning and mid-afternoon. They might even take a lunch break, although more likely than not, they eat it at their desk.

If you can relate to any of those types, or perhaps you flit between a couple of different types, depending on your workday, there is a much better way to approach how you take breaks. Because if you fall into any of those categories, your “break style” is killing your productivity.

Emily Hunter and Cindy Wu from Baylor University were keen to understand what constituted the perfect break. One of the shortcomings of the majority of research into breaks is that it is generally conducted in a lab environment. Where Hunter and Wu were able to take things a step further is that their study looked at breaks in the real world.

The researchers recruited around 100 office workers in the United States. After every single break participants took over the course of a week, they were asked to complete a survey. Armed with a lot of data, several key findings emerged.

Have your first break early in the day

Hunter and Wu found that the timing of people’s breaks mattered a lot. Those who took their first break of the day early on in their “shift” reported feeling more energetic. This is in contrast to the idea of either saying up your break for when you feel like you really need it (e.g. struggling to the afternoon and then taking a break) or feeling like you are “too busy” to take a break and thus delaying it until the afternoon.

Align your break activity with something enjoyable

Second, breaks that fit with individuals’ preferences were more effective at re-charging. So if, for example, you got a coffee with a co-worker during your break, but don’t actually like coffee (or your co-worker, for that matter), this would be less recharging than if you were a book worm who used the break to do some reading.

While you might assume that activities involving more effort, such as running errands, would make for a less effective break than non-effortful activities, no difference was found. Likewise, the effectiveness of a break was not impacted by whether people left the office or did work related tasks during their break.

Take six x five-minute breaks

Research from the University of Colorado uncovered that in contrast to one 30-minute break, hourly five-minute walking breaks boost energy, sharpen focus, improve mood and reduce feelings of fatigue in the afternoon more effectively.

While you might be asking yourself how you will find the time for six breaks, just get into the habit of trying to take a quick walk on the hour. You might even use the “speedy meetings” setting in Google Calendar to schedule 25 and 50 minute meetings, rather than 30 and 60 minute meetings. Aim to “take five” in between meetings if you are trapped in a day of back-to-back meetings.

The 40-second power break

Finally, if you don’t have time to implement any of the above suggestions, as a last resort you’ll be happy to know that the minimum effective dose for a break is just 40 seconds. Research from the Journal of Environmental Psychology showed that taking a 40-second “Green Micro-break”, that is, looking at a view of greenery, increased concentration levels by eight per cent. So take less than a minute to find some trees to look at, set the timer for 40 seconds and enjoy the view!


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